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December 15, 2006

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Meteor Blades,

Thank you for your work over the years in helping to expose this outrage. Whatever your particular efforts, I'm sure they have made a difference.

In the late 70s and 80s I had friends from several of the parts of Latin America that figure heavily in that time of Contras and Operation Condors. They convinced me of what I had suspected even from the skimpy news coverage that managed to get through up here in the E.U.—that the story of what was happening in their countries was relevant to the current and future course of events here in this country.

Part of how they convinced me was through discussions, of course, in which I was urged to learn how intertwined past and present events in our countries were. But just as important was how I learned from them the toll that terror societies take on their citizens, the highly and less involved alike. It exhausts the mind and the emotions. As some writers on such places have described, seemingly innocuous words or objects that have been incorporated into the terror regime become so charged with repugnant meaning that ordinary social and professional interactions are like, well, minefields. We assume that daily life in an actual warzone such as Iraq would be difficult in this way, but I saw from my friends how it could happen to people in places where to an outsider the violence might seem avoidable.

That someone who has thus sickened an entire society should take it as his due to escape all public, formal reckoning is beyond offensive, as is any help, even through foul approbation in the media, that any country would give to such a person. If we do not find our voice on these cases, more so than we've done, we run two risks: that people in other countries become more convinced that we are a smug and silly people, unreliable unless our immediate lives or pecuniary fortunes are at stake; and that the supporters and enablers of such as Ríos Montt—and lately many have been way out there where you can't miss them—will use the resulting impunity to tighten the screws on all of us.

"Thanks to Spain’s view that it has universal jurisdiction over war crimes"

That's really interesting. I didn't realize that was the reason Spain was the key in all these prosecutions.

That's really interesting.

MB

I like your first paragraph.

I wonder if it would be possible to rent out port-a-potties to construction jobs with a picture of Pinochet in the bottom of each? Might even call them "Pinochet-potties" or something.

It's just a symbolic action anyway. A symbol of the grave should be enough. It could also be done anywhere in the world, and just pictures of the pinochet-potties should get the idea across.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but when you wrote that you didn't speak "Mayan" during your travels through the Quiche and Huehuetenango provinces, well, neither does anyone else. There are several languages spoken in those areas, but none of them arw called Mayan. The word Maya itself is a catch-all that covers many different peoples of Mesoamerica, who each believe themselves to be distinct from the others.

Also, while Rios Montt was certainly a hideous criminal, some or even many of the human rights' abuses that you attempted to investigate were probably committed before he came to power. The entire counter-insurgency strategy, with its "beans and bullets" and mandatory civil defence-patrol duty, etc., was designed by the military well before he was invited to become a member of the military junta after the 1982 coup, whereupon Rios suddenly shocked the others by declaring: "God has put me here." God or no God, the strategy in the highlands was already underway, although it arguably got an accelerated push. And the killings continued apace, quite after Rios himself was overthrown in 1983.

I make the point only because it is essential for Americans to finally stop looking for that one bad bogeyman, and begin to see that most of the abuses carried out around the world are institutional and systematic, (as per Guatemala) which is far more insidious than the work of merely one crazed man.

Rios was a bloodthirsty despot and a lunatic. But those abuses would have occurred without him, and in fact they did occur both before and after he was in the picture.

By all means, prosecute Rios - but keep the docket open for a very long list of others, if you really want to seek justice.

Many US officials and mercenaries are also equally to blame.

All that aside, kudos to you for keeping the issue alive, at a time when Central America has been largely forgotten in the USA. One would be hard-pressed to find a person under 30 who knows even the first damned thing about El Salvador (and a vast majority of their elders know just about as much).

This is blogging at its best. Meteor might not get around to writing a book in his life, but here a story that can teach comes alive.

Thanks, Meteor, and you have my admiration for putting your life on the line for the good of other people.

Throughout the 80s, we kept saying to each other, if they get away with this wanton murder and violation of persons in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicargua, eventually they will do the same here. Post 9/11, for too many persons who are Muslim and/or of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, this has become uncomfortably close to true. Not to mention what they did to Padilla.

Yes -- let's go after Rios Montt -- and let's keep after our own empowered abusers of human rights.

Don't despair MB, John Negroponte is still available for the ignominious christening.

Illinois Congressman Jerry Weller is married to Rios Montt's daughter. Good thing the R's no longer control Congress. She apparently shares her father's tastes.

I don't disagree with what I take to be your key premise, Thomas Long, that Rios Montt was just one in a long line of thugs at the top of Guatemala's ruling military. And there is no doubt that the entire period of 1978-1984 showed a peak in the state-sponsored violence in which the Maya were slaughtered in larger numbers than before or after. The extermination of Maya was, indeed, institutionalized. It is, moreover, true that a focus on singular "heroes" and "villains" gives us a distorted view of complex historical processes.

Nonetheless, most experts agree that the year and a half during which Rios Montt was in charge was worst for Guatemala's indigenous poor since the Conquest. Perhaps 10% of all those killed during the 36-year-long civil war died during this period.

"Rifles and beans," and the forced "civil patrols" were instituted by Rios Montt - although he certainly had assistance at home and from abroad in doing so. After his brief reign, the situation improved, although high levels of state-promoted violence continued for a decade.

You're right about "Mayan," of course, which I used as shorthand.

Meteor: yes, the "fusiles y frijoles" scheme and civil-defence patrols were instituted during Rios' reign, but my point was and is that he didn't come up with any of it; That was all part of the army's strategic counter-insurgency planning, and was developed a couple years before, under the direction of Gen. Benedicto Lucas Garcia. He was an influential officer, whose brother was the widely reviled military president from 78-82 before being ousted in the coup that ended up bringing Rios to power. Benedicto is on the record as saying he got the idea from his pals in the French military, under whom he studied. It didn't work for the French in Vietnam, but - tragically - it did work well for the Guatemalan army and its sponsors, both domestic and foreign.

Romeo Lucas was an especially vicious and bloody dictator, but he was ousted for his abject incompetence - and to stop his appointed successor from taking over. As you know, the army at the time played the game of rotating its presidents at regular electoral intervals, to create the patina of "democracy" that served its apologists. But it was also part of the military's own ascension policies among competing classes of officers - to spread about the spoils - albeit with plenty of room for sudden dictatorial tendencies to blossom, which were then taken care of by coups when deemed necessary. In any event, the actual army strategies on the ground were determined by institutional committees of officers, and not so much by the president at any particular time; thus Rios Montt inherited that strategy for "pacifying" the western highlands, although he certainly did give a green light to kill with extreme prejudice.

Believe me, I've no interest in defending that despicable man, whom I had the displeasure of interviewing long ago (a fairly terrifying experience). He should be prosecuted. My interest is also in exposing the root of these problems, and not so much in the bobble-headed tyrants that may appear and from time to time, to take the credit/blame.

While outsiders have always laid most of the blame on Rios, inside Guatemala he received similar amounts of undeserved credit, for the overall strategy and for the failures of the rebel insurgency. What was even more strange is that he was hugely popular in the very same western highlands that he had raped and torched, for many years afterward, and is fondly recalled up there yet today. But that's a topic for a different discussion.

Cheers, tl

Oops, I typed to fast there. Lucas was ousted in a coup, and it was the ensuing interim administration of Gen. Mejia Vitores that was ousted in yet another coup shortly afterward, which brought Rios to power. It was a chaotic time.

Too many coups, too little time to recall them all...

``But that's a topic for a different discussion.''

TL: for those of us who are still in need of enlightment on these matters, at least a hint would be helpful.... (I have thought hitherto that Rios Montt was the worst of the baddies, largely because it seemed that the peak of the killing took place on his watch, and I assumed that he had ordered it, or rather had ordered the campaign by the military from whence that killing had sprung. If I read you correctly that much is not so much wrong but out of context.)

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